Nov. 21 2012 09:04 AM

Indie-rockers sound crude, gloomy and just a bit whimsical

From left: Chase Elliott, Kyle Whatley, Timothy Hines and Ryan Hand
Photo by Adam Urban and Jeremiah Wesseling

Timothy Hines is a clean-cut guy. He has a solid jawline, neatly combed hair and sharp sartorial taste. Over the years, as a member of local bands The Stereotypes and Lights On, he’s developed a reputation for crafting sophisticated indie-rock tunes with a pop sensibility.

Two years ago, though, Hines decided to take a new, markedly cruder approach to songwriting. Holed up in his house in La Mesa, he’d stay awake late into the night and bang out songs with little regard for complexity or production quality.

“I would usually be either on my way to getting drunk or just about drunk, and then get even more drunk,” he recalls. The songs “would metabolize ’til about 4 or 5 in the morning, 6 o’clock in the morning. Sometimes I would be passed out on the floor with my computer feeding back.”

At first, Hines didn’t plan to do anything with the songs. But he eventually put together a backing band, with Kyle Whatley on guitar and keyboards, Chase Elliott on bass and Ryan Hand on drums. They started playing shows in mid-2011.

Now, Tropical Popsicle is one of the most enthralling indie bands in the city. Specializing in trippy, synth-infused psych-rock, they strike a fine line between pop and gloom with their grimy production quality, fierce live shows and quirky sense of humor.

Whimsy is a strong part of the band’s aesthetic: In the video for their song “The Tethers,” the members are cast in silhouette as dancing lava lamps. But the band has a darker side. Hines and Hand both have a fascination with conspiracy theories and the writings of famed occultist Aleister Crowley; Whatley says he was attracted to the murky tones and somber minor chords of Hines’ songs.

On Dawn of Delight, Tropical Popsicle’s debut album—which comes out on local label Volar Records in January and will be released in Europe via French label Talitres—some of the best songs are the darkest. Mid-tempo track “The Beach with No Footprints” (currently available on a Volar 7-inch) creeps along with a shimmering, syncopated drum machine and a spy-movie bass line. Propulsive closer “Universe of God Shadow” evokes the blood-red skies and talking cactuses of a peyote trip gone sour.

Hines doesn’t want to limit the band exclusively to bad vibes, though. On album highlight “Ghost Beacons” (also out via Volar on a 7-inch) the deliberately paced beat and regal vocal melody complement a glorious spiral of guitars and synths.

“It’s like living your life, dude,” Hines says. “These times are fucked up right now, right? But there’s also really good times. On my way here, I was thinking about how awesome it was that I actually have a job.”

In a freewheeling, 90-minute interview at a coffeehouse in Golden Hill, the band’s good humor is on full display. As we talk, the four members trip over each other as we crack jokes about everything from time management to autoerotic asphyxiation.

Soon, the conversation turns to “beach goth,” an indierock micro-genre that bloggers and music writers have used to describe the band. While the term is most commonly associated with The Growlers, a ragtag garage band from Orange County, it’s gained wider usage lately, along with other niche terms like “seapunk” and “twinklecore.” In response, the guys in Tropical Popsicle have included “beach goth” in the “Genre” section on their Facebook page, alongside made-up categories like “Snubstep” and “jim jam.”

“It’s a total joke, and somehow people have picked up on that and ran with it,” Hand says about the “beach goth” craze. He has no use for such categories. “You can deconstruct whatever you want. Make your own collage.”

But while beach goth might not be a very useful term—to me, The Growlers sound more like pirates than goths—it’s accurate with Tropical Popsicle in at least one way.

Recently, two of the band’s songs were featured in The Distant Shores, a surfing video produced by Surfer magazine. In one segment, their song “The View from the Dihedral Wall” plays while a group of surfers conquers the freezing-cold breaks of Norway, battling wind and hail. It’s a fitting scene for the track’s menacing synth-drones.

“If we were going to be affiliated with any kind of surf video,” Hand says, “that was probably the one.”

The band’s been busy lately. This week, they’re playing some West Coast dates with SISU, an L.A. band featuring Dum Dum Girls drummer Sandra Vu. They’re planning to set up a European tour for early next year, in time for Dawn of Delight’s release on Talitres.

These days, they’ve been taking a more collaborative approach to songwriting. Most of Dawn of Delight consists of Hines’ original home productions, but “Ghost Beacons” was a full-band effort.

At this point, Hines doesn’t plan to return to his old, sophisticated ways anytime soon.

“I’ve done that for years, and I don’t really want that in this band. I’m just going to write simple songs,” he says. “You know, just really caveman-like.”

Tropical Popsicle plays with SISU and Gothic Tropic at The Casbah on Tuesday, Nov. 27. 

Email or follow him on Twitter at @peterholslin.